Art Carden  

Schooling and Technology in The Second Machine Age

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Mencken's Appeasement... Freedom of Association: What ...

I recently read Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's The Second Machine Age, and I will have more to say on it later. This story caught my attention in light of their emphasis on developing skills that are complements to technology: Tennessee, my former home, has decided to mandate the teaching of cursive in grades 2-4. The executive director of the Tennessee School Board calls it "an art that is losing its form because of the keyboard."

I'm really not sure why this is a bad thing; a few weeks ago, I asked for examples of skills that will probably be obsolete before too long and got some great answers.

The reintroduction of mandatory cursive kind of baffles me: how did a coalition develop that turned this into the law of the land? At Reason, Robby Soave notes that it might be part of a backlash against Common Core, and I think this might be plausible, but is learning cursive really God-mom-and-apple-pie salient enough to appeal to the Conservative base?

I'm willing to believe that knowing cursive might make you a better reader, but is it really worth the cost? Or is it like learning a foreign language, according to Bryan? I don't think I'm that impoverished culturally because I can't read Tolstoy in Russian; will our children be culturally impoverished if they don't write in cursive?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Daniel Lemire writes:

Though cursive might be useless... someone who does not know cursive would appear less literate.

Similarly, mastering foreign languages is a potent signal of your intellectual prowess.

Imagine the scene. You are in some conference and there is a Russian speaker. When comes you turn to ask a question, you ask it in Russian. How would your colleagues feel? I think many would be thoroughly impressed. Yes, mastering Russian might be economically fruitless... but that is the point.

If you can afford to acquire useless skills, it sends a strong signal about you.

Mark Bahner writes:
At Reason, Robby Soave notes that it might be part of a backlash against Common Core, and I think this might be plausible, but is learning cursive really God-mom-and-apple-pie salient enough to appeal to the Conservative base?

Yes, definitely.

JKB writes:

Well, it doesn't take that long to learn cursive. But it opens up to the student, even later in life, the ability to read those letters by your great grandparents back during the war. Not to mention, old documents and texts, if one choses to become an academic. Question, would it be easier to learn to read/write cursive in elementary school or as an undergraduate? Which would be a more productive use of time?

Early learning of cursive opens up calligraphy, if even as a hobby. It would be as useful as teaching painting, sculpting, or other fine arts. So if you promote the teaching of fine arts in school, you should support the teaching of cursive writing and reading. If you prefer a more utilitarian society, then perhaps not?

And, while I don't think the research was so specific as to discern between cursive and printing, handwritten notes in school have been shown to enhance student comprehension of the material, vs typing.

Greg Heslop writes:

When I was trying to learn Russian not too many years ago, I was told that Russians who do not master cursive are looked down upon (any Russians here are free to correct me if I am wrong). I suppose this would be a benefit of learning it for Russians. Of course, learning cursive solely because everyone else can use it is useless duplication when block letters are simpler. To mandate its place in school curricula is something I would certainly not want to have to defend.

Tom West writes:

I can pretty much guarantee that either no one asked "what will we *not* teach so that we can teach cursive writing", or if that was asked, the question was roundly ignored.

When dealing with things like the value of cursive writing (or other abstracts), people do *not* like to face the fact that there are still trade-offs that will be made.

At best, it's ignored. At worst, it's considered immoral to be consciously and deliberately making those trade-offs.

robbbbbb writes:

One of our kids' babysitters is a homeschooled* student whose mother made her learn cursive handwriting, and labored on the neatness of her penmanship.

She is now a college student. Because of this focus on penmanship she takes excellent notes, and her class notes are in demand with her classmates. Cursive handwriting enables her to write more quickly. Her material is more complete and legible than any of her classmates.

Cursive may be a dying art, but perhaps it shouldn't be.

*We homeschool our kids, too, and my wife has taken this lesson to heart. Our kids are getting some focus on penmanship.

mike shupp writes:

Cursive? Oh the horrors!

What's next? Demanding children be able to multiply and divide without calculators? OMG! How can civilization survive such barbarity?

Anne writes:

neurological wiring...I think it may come down to that. My husband and I homeschooled our sons for a few of their elementary years and made sure they learned cursive. Learning cursive creates different paths in your brain than typing the same info on a keyboard, if I understand it correctly. It certainly helped my sons, who had terrible printing, and it also helped them learn to think, I think;) This Washington Post article describes skipping cursive as a "cognitive opportunity lost" http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/10/AR2006101001475_2.html

Andrew M writes:

I assume that cursive in the US is what was called joined-up writing where I was raised. The advantage always claimed for it was that it's faster. If it is, then that's a worthwhile benefit to consider in a world in which writing by hand will continue to be useful for a while yet. One day we will write directly with our minds, but in the meantime do you really want to be able to write only when you have some functioning keyboard to hand?

Btw, I don't know about Russian and Tolstoy, but one is certainly worse off not being able to read Plato in Greek. It doesn't follow that the benefit is worth the high cost of learning Greek, and in forgoing the benefit one need not be "culturally impoverished"; but one is worse off in one respect than one would otherwise have been.

Tom West writes:

Because of this focus on penmanship she takes excellent notes, and her class notes are in demand with her classmates.

Ironically enough, the next generation would be unlikely to borrow her notes, as they wouldn't be able to read them!

On another point, I'm sad to see hand-written class notes disappearing altogether in favor of typed, or even worse, teacher-provided, class notes. If my sons are any guide, the physical act of hand-writing the notes allows a significantly larger proportion of the information to actually "stick" in the student's brain.

For some reason, typing notes on a computer ends up more like stenography, going from ear to fingers without hitting the brain in the middle. Does hand-writing require that much more engagement?

Of course, this might be a false observation on my part.

Tracy W writes:
But it opens up to the student, even later in life, the ability to read those letters by your great grandparents back during the war.

One of my primary school teachers was insistent about the importance of beautiful handwriting, and ranted at length about how its importance had declined, compared to the Victorian area and even the 2nd half of the 20th century.

I was quite miffed when I studied history at high school and I found original hand-written sources from the 19th century to regularly be very hard to read. (Note, I'm old enough that we were taught handwriting at school.)

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